Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life.”

We’d skipped the last two installments at the movies, having been burned by part three, but after the excellent content of #5, and since this was likely to be our last chance, Chris and I made it a “dinner and a movie” thing on Saturday. Was disturbed by how many kids there were for this R-rated film – hell, even a couple of babes in arms, whom I’m sure loved the non-stop violence. I guess it was deemed kid-friendly by their parents, with this one getting its MPAA rating just “for sequences of violence throughout,” rather than anything truly corrupting, such as momentary Milla mammarage. Cutely, the feature was preceded by a quick personal message from director and star, thanking us for their support of the series. Yeah, it’s utterly meaningless, but nice to be appreciated.

Onto the movie, which I think probably would have been better received by us as a stand-alone entry, if we hadn’t watched parts 1-5 last weekend. #QuickPlug: re-reviews of all those to follow later this week. For there seems to be an awful lot of ret-conning going on, in particular for the Red Queen, played here by Milla’s daugher, Ever. Not only is her origin story drastically revised from Apocalypse, there’s also a new, Robocop-esque rule that she can’t harm Umbrella employees. [I note that Anderson even lifts the same escape clause used by Verhoeven] Must be Red Queen v1.1, because all the workers at the Hive she killed in the original movie, didn’t seem to benefit from this protection…

The story sees Alice (Jovovich) returning to Raccoon City, seeking the airborne antidote she discovers – from of all people, the Red Queen, little Miss Laser Corridor herself – was created by Umbrella. If Alice can release it into the wild, it will take out all the T-virus infected. Which is a bit of a problem since, don’t forget, the list includes our heroine herself. Standing in her way is Dr. Isaacs (Glen), who has set his plan in motion to exterminate the last remaining pockets of humanity and complete his apocalyptic vision thing, along with a massive swarm of zombies he’s leading back to the Hive. On Alice’s side are a few of those final survivors, including Claire Redfield (Larter) and Abigail (Rose), adding extra girls-with-guns firepower – as if it were really necessary here.

The main problem is this: editor Doobie White really should lay off the caffeine. I don’t think it’s Anderson’s problem, as Retribution was perfectly fine in this area, but the hand-to-hand fights look like they were edited by putting them through a highly enthusiastic wood-chipper. They stay just about on this side of incoherent, but you don’t so much watch these, as experience them on a subliminal level. Maybe it’s a result of protagonists Jovovich and Glen being in their forties and mid-50’s respectively: I know if I was appearing in an action movie, you’d certainly have to edit the hell out of me to look good! But it’s still annoying as hell. The best sequence is when the camera sits back a bit and we can actually appreciate Alice, dangling from an underpass, as she beats up a posse of hapless Umbrella drones (below).

Due to this, the film is at is most effective in other areas, mostly when going wide and giving us a look at the bigger picture, specifically the sheer scope of the devastation and conflict. There’s a couple of scenes where I think the zombie count may have surpassed World War Z, and that volume is undeniably impressive. It requires, naturally, equally large-scale defense and the sequence where the humans create multiple waterfalls of fire is startling and striking. An an aside, I note the film cost only $40 million, which is $25m less than last time, and little more than the price-tag for the original, 15 years ago. Anderson is clearly great at getting bang per buck, and if the box-office reception was lukewarm in North America, the film has already almost made its cost back in Japan alone.

I also was glad to see Glen back, and just as in #3, he brings a human face to the evil corporation. [Yes, he died at the end of that one. No, it’s not a problem.] I envisage a long career for him, in the mode of Charles Dance and Alan Rickman, being the go-to guy whenever a film needs a solidly British villain. Here, he gets to show a couple of facets, both coldly calculating and manically psychotic, and is fun to watch in both. But, of course, it’s Milla’s show, and she also gets to do a bit more than you might expect: if you ever wondered what she’ll look like in her seventies, this movie will answer your question. Though going by how little she seems to have changed over the decade and a half of the series, if she looked exactly the same at that age, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Otherwise, she has become Alice, adopting a world-weary stare here, reminiscent of our cat when we annoy him. It seems to say, “I could get violent, but you’re just not worth the effort,” while she re-enacts some of the series’s greatest hits, such as the laser corridor, or a whole pack of zombie dogs (well, more dog-shaped things, to be honest). Is there closure for Alice? Yes, although not as much as I would have liked. The film had a chance to draw a line under itself in permanent marker, and allow Milla to go off into the happy suburban life her character briefly enjoyed in #5. Sadly, the script doesn’t quite have the courage to do that; let’s just say, if Mr. and Mrs. Anderson need an extra wing on the mansion the franchise’s profits has bought them, it won’t be impossible.

All told, if you’ve got this far in the series, you’re not likely to be disappointed, except by the over-active editing. If you haven’t, this is certainly not going to convince you of its merits. And that’s okay too.

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson
Star: Milla Jovovich, Ian Glen, Ali Larter, Ruby Rose

The Resident Evil animated films

residentevilanimeThe Milla Jovovich series are not the only films set in the Resident Evil universe. There have also been two feature-length computer animated movies: Degeneration was released in 2008, and Damnation four years later. A third, Vendetta, is scheduled to be released in Japan this spring. While made in Japan, with a Japanese director and crew, the voice cast are English-speaking. As with the novels, the stories and characters are in line with the universe of the computer games, rather than the live-action features, and tend to occupy spots in the timeline between the entries in the game series. Therefore, there’s no Alice, but the animated films contain their fair share of strong heroines and, of course, action.

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Resident Evil: Degeneration

degenerationThere’s a new EvilCorp in town, and its name is WilPharma, as we learn during the montage of news stories which opens this. In game terms, the film takes place after the events of “Resident Evil 4”, which saw the dismantling of the Umbrella Corporation. Its assets and research naturally proved too valuable to destroy, and WilPharma has taken over, with the announced goal of developing a vaccine for the troublesome T-virus. However, some dubious medical research in India leads to the company being targeted by protestors from TerraSave. It’s one such demo, at the Harvardville Airport, that kicks things off, as a plane of infected subjects crashes into the terminal, where Senator Davis is trying to avoid the protestors. TerraSave’s Claire Redfield (Court) finds herself trapped with the Senator, before they’re rescued by a team of soldiers including Angela Miller (Bailey) and Leon S. Kennedy (Mercier).

Claire goes to the WiiPharma research facility, at the invitation of researcher Frederic Downing, and discovers they have the even more lethal G-virus being studied. There is… oh, dammit, let’s just call it “quite a lot more plot”, involving WiiPharma’s efforts to sell the virus as a bioweapon to General Grande; Angela’s brother, Curtis (Smith) an ecoterrorist who deliberately injects himself with the G-virus; and the true identity of the mastermind behind it all. It’s probably too much to be crammed into 98 minutes, especially when you also have to fit in copious amounts of action. The second half, in particular, is more or less one long action sequence, with Angela and Leon trying to survive in the facility. It’s a change of focus, since Redfield was the main protagonist during the first half, becoming the guardian of a friend’s child during the attack at the airport, maybe reflecting her switch to pacifism (albeit pacifism of an oddly bad-ass kind!).

Being CG, and of a 2008 vintage, the animation is good at doing what 2008-era CG was good at, which is movement rather than emotion – as you’d probably also expect from a film produced by a video-game studio. The sequences and shots where the camera is swooping in and around the battle participants, are sometimes spectacularly good, and in general, while in motion, this is effective and exciting. Beyond the technical, its problems are more a plot which lurches from frantic action set pieces to expository lumps, and seems to rely too much on viewers being familiar with the characters and creatures from the games. But it has to be said, WiiPharma certainly seem to have a better handle on the proper use of containment mechanisms than Umbrella ever managed…

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star: Alyson Court, Paul Mercier, Laura Bailey, Roger Craig Smith

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Resident Evil: Damnation

adawong-jpgIncluded here largely for completeness, since the action heroine content likely would fall a little short of qualification on its own. Not that it’s entirely lacking, as the video at the bottom shows. But it’s definitely more a vehicle for Leon S. Kennedy (Mercer/Dorman). Which brings me to one of the odd things here: that is not a typo, it’s a double-credit for the character, because two different actors played the role, one providing the voice, the other the source for the motion-captured animation. Not sure I’ve seen that before.

Anyway, Kennedy finds himself dumped into the middle of a former Warsaw Pact satellite nation, the Eastern Slav Republic, which is being torn apart by a struggle between Government forces, under President Svetlana Belikova (Lee/Lee), and rebel groups. Both sides are making use of B.O.W’s, Bio-Organic Weapons, which have now been developed to such an extent that humans can now mind-control some of the creatures, using a parasitic organism called Plaga – albeit not without some unpleasant effects. Meanwhile Ada Wong (Taylor/Andersen) – hang on, last time I saw her, she was dying in one of the novels? – is trying to insert herself into Belikova’s circle, with her own agenda in mind. It all builds to an extended battle, pitting Leon and rebel commander, Alexander Kozachenko (Wittenberg/Earnest), along with the Lickers the latter controls, against the monstrous Tyrants fighting on behalf of Belikova.

This is particularly well done, a lengthy, escalating sequence of animated carnage, even if it does require something of a deus ex machina to show up at the end. It’s clear that animation has progressed markedly since the first movie, and this film takes full advantage of those improvements in its action scenes. For the purposes of this site, I’d really like to have seen more of Wong, whose moral ambivalence is intriguing; I reached the end, and still didn’t know on whose side she was supposed to be. [She does show up in RE: Retribution, played by Li BingBing, albeit dubbed there too]. The scene below, where she goes hand-to-hand with President Belikova, is a lot of fun – Belikova certainly counts as one of the more hard-core politicians I’ve seen! Bet she could kick Hillary Clinton’s ass…

And that is as close to politics as I’m ever going to get o

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star (voice): Matthew Mercer, Dave Wittenberg, Courtenay Taylor, Wendee Lee
Star (motion-capture): Kevin Dorman, David Earnest, Jolene Andersen, Melinda Lee

Calamity Jane’s Revenge

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“Talk is cheap. VERY cheap…”

calamityTwo stars might actually be a bit generous, on an objective scale. But I confess to possessing a soft spot for low-budget films made with passion, even if the results fall short. The most obvious deficiency here is the location shooting. Outside of an opening scene with a few ramshackle houses, the entire film takes place in a forest. Seriously, the closest thereafter we get to seeing any other buildings, is two people leaning up against a fence… in the middle of the woods. Maybe they should have called it Calamity Jane: The Wilderness Years, and set viewer expectations appropriately.

It’s a revenge story, which we join in progress, with the husband of Jane (Ryan), no mean legend himself, Wild Bill Hickok, having already been gunned down. She’s now on the trail of the men responsible, who have split up and need to be tracked down individually. Complicating matters, one of the culprits is now accompanied by a kidnap victim, Fay (Gomez), whom Jane initially attempts to leave behind, but eventually agrees to help out. Additionally, Jane is being tracked by the new sheriff of Deadwood, along with renowned tracker, Colorado Charlie Utter (former WWE star Snow, which was an unexpected surprise). Will she be able to finish her mission of vengeance before the forces of law catch up with her?

And, more importantly, will the viewer be able to finish this movie, before unconsciousness catches up with them? Because the pacing on this leaves a great deal to be desired, without any real sense of building toward a climax. The film instead ambles its way through the trees, giving you two minutes of action, then 15 minutes of chit-chat. Rinse. Repeat. Forest. It’s not actually badly acted: Ryan has some presence, and Snow is certainly no worse than some others from the WWE who have stepped in front of the camera (looking at you, John Cena…). But the paucity of the resources available also leads to action more befitting a school playground, in which when people get shot, they fall over clutching their chest, without ever any apparent injury. Could the budget truly not stretch to a couple of bottles of fake blood?

On the technical side, it’s has its moments, with some impressive drone (I’m guessing) shots, capturing the epic grandeur of the mountains. These do, however, seem somewhat at odd with the static approach taken for the rest of the film. Couto seems to have tried his hand at various genres over the years, from horror to family films; while I guess he’s to be commended for that, it perhaps helps explains why this feels so generic. If you’re short on budget, you need to make up for this in other, inexpensive ways, from imagination to risk-taking. Unfortunately, Couto appears more concerned with playing it safe, and there’s precious little here that will stick in the viewer’s brain past the end credits.

Dir: Henrique Couto
Star: Erin R. Ryan, Al Snow, Julia Gomez, Adam Scott Clevenger

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki

Sudden Death

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“Ms. 12-inch 45”

suddendeathThe star of this rape-revenge film, Denise Coward is a former beauty-queen, who was the second runner-up at Miss World in 1978, representing Australia. She didn’t exactly have a long movie career – this and sci-fi flick Galaxy representing roughly the sum total of it. Watching this, it’s easy to understand why, though it would require a significantly better actor than her to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a script and direction she is given here. Coward plays Valerie Wells, a career woman in New York who gets into the wrong taxi one night. For it has been stolen by a pair of low-lifes, who rape their passenger before dumping her unconscious body on the street. The cops, in particular Detective Marty Lowery (Runyeon) are sympathetic but over-worked, and Coward’s fiancé is about as much help as a chocolate teapot. What’s a girl to do?

Obviously, this being an eighties video flick, the answer is: pick up a handgun on a trip to Hilton Head with a friend, then start stalking the mean streets of the Big Apple, acting as a human honey-pot. And woe betide anyone who tries to take advantage of her, as they’ll find themselves being shot by what the press soon terms “The Dum-dum Killer”, named after Valerie’s ammunition of choice. Her ongoing relationship with Det. Lowery, however, poses something of a problem, not least when he comes across a box of those bullets in her night-stand. Meanwhile, it turns out – what are the odds – that the very same scumballs responsible for kicking off Valerie’s vendetta, are planning to rob a courier of bearer bonds, and their intent comes to Lowery’s attention.

In the right hands, this would have worked a great deal better – and, the truth is, that was exactly what was done a few years previously, in Abel Ferrara’s classic, Ms. 45. Coward certainly is not Zoe Tamerlis/Lund, and Shore, a producer on Super Fly, isn’t Ferrara either, with the New York he portrays being invested with nowhere near the same sense of perpetual menace. Instead, this never seems to get out of second gear, and is happy to endorse her vigilante murder, except for one sequence where Valerie ends up showing mercy for one of her targets, despite having just delivered the immortal line at him, “You’re gonna get what you deserve, you rapist!” It’s the only scene which comes even close to approaching the depth of 45.

The rest is more ludicrous than discomforting, probably peaking with Valerie wandering round what has to be the gayest-looking non-gay bar in the city. Otherwise, the highlight has nothing to do with the main plot, being the final foot-chase which is more of a marathon, running through Manhattan (look, kids! Th World Trade Center!), and over a bridge to Queens (I’m guessing), unfolding to the strains of classic 80’s pop tun, I.O.U by Freeez. For somehow, the producers here got hip-hop legend Arthur Baker to produce the music – yeah, I finally explained my choice of tag-line! – and this means you’ll also hear a lot of New Order’s Confusion. But this really only works as a musical time-capsule of the mid-eighties.

Dir: Sig Shore
Star: Denise Coward, Frank Runyeon, Jaime Tirelli, Robert Trumbull
a.k.a. Dirty Harriet

Seven Vengeful Women

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“The good, the bad and the pretty.”

7-mujeresA wagon train on its way West to California is besieged by multiple waves of Apaches. Between attacks, the seven women among the settlers are hidden in a nearby cave, but the next assault proves terminal, and the women are left, alone and deep in enemy territory. The only hope for this band of largely unprepared women, is to strike out across a hostile landscape. They’ll need to cross 100 miles between them and the nearest settlement, Fort Lafayette, while fending off further native attacks.

This 1966 film is an early example of a “Europudding,” being a co-production between Spain, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein(!). There are three directors credited, though Parolini’s name appears to have been simply to get Italian funding, and Pink was apparently the main man behind the camera. The results are only sporadically effective, being hampered by characters and actions which are often little more than clichés, on all sides. They actually use the line, “Never turn your back on an Indian,” and I literally LOL’d when the settlers formed their wagons into a circle, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done in a film, except as a parody.

The star is former Oscar-winner Baxter, who plays Mary-Anne, the de facto leader of the group, and delivers a solid performance. Though as action-heroines, I was probably more impressed with the Grimaldi Sisters, a circus act (played by Como and Adriana Ambesi) whose skills help save the group on multiple occasions – there’s a running joke about these abilities inevitably being obtained from previous sideshow boyfriends. Most of the rest don’t make much impression, and while trying to avoid spoilers, the mortality rate is so low that the Apaches don’t present much of a threat. While there are some dark hints about the women being wanted alive, this was the mid-sixties, so hints are all you’ll get, and the whole thing is rather too gentle for its own good.

That said, the women develop a harder edge over the course of proceedings. The first time they repel an Indian attack, the victim they capture is kept alive, at least until he escapes. By the end, they’re ruthlessly clubbing natives to death with their rifles, in the closest the film goes to a genuinely disturbing sequence [Look, I saw Bone Tomahawk recently. My “genuinely disturbing” scale got entirely re-calibrated, as far as the Western genre goes] Second spot likely goes to the Apache victim whose body is found, mostly for Mary-Anne’s stern instruction that nobody should look under her clothes.

But this is the kind of film where the heroines start off their hundred-mile trek in long skirts. Even for the time, that seems a stretch, and is an unfortunate precursor to the rest of the movie. It’s not a bad idea, and the leads are fine too; the problem here is a script which hasn’t aged well

Dir: Gianfranco Parolini, Rudolf Zehetgruber, Sidney W. Pink
Star: Anne Baxter, Maria Perschy, Gustavo Rojo, Rossella Como
a.k.a. The Tall Women

Body

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“Bah, humbug.”

It’s the festive season, and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen), and Mel (Molina) are bored. At the suggestion of Cali, they head over to her uncle’s fabulous mansion – conveniently, he’s out of town for the holidays – for a little par-tay. Except, it’s not actually her uncle’s house. Worse is to follow, ending with the caretaker (Fessenden) lying, apparently dead, at the foot of the stairs. The three young ladies are left having to decide whether to ‘fess up and face the consequences, or cover up and create an alternative version of events.

According to Wikipedia, the three characters “represent Sigmund Freud’s model of the id, ego, and superego.” I guess that’s something you don’t see every day. Certainly, they’re radically different characters, to the extent you wonder somewhat, quite why they’re hanging out with each other. Cali is prepared to go to absolutely any lengths, to avoid responsibility. Holly is at the other end of the spectrum, convinced they are only making things worse for themselves by committing further crimes. Mel is the undecided voter, and it’s her shifting support which largely drives the second half, as Cali and Holly solicit her support. Who knew teenagers were such sticklers for the democratic process?

bodyIt kinda works, mostly for the dynamics between the trio of leading ladies. At first, Cali’s approach seems sensible, arguably a legitimate way to make the best of a bad situation. However, a change in the scenario shifts things seismically, and even the toughest of her supporters would have to admit an unpleasant streak of psychopathy is opened in her make-up. Evil sometimes wears a pretty face, and Turshen reminded me more than a little of Denise Richards in Wild Things – manipulative and . Less successful, to the point of entire irrelevance, is the boyfriend who shows up and yells for a bit. I suspect, given the slight running time of 75 minutes, his presence may have been a late-added necessity in order to reach feature length.

However, if the ending is probably when the film is most fun, it’s also where the script seems to be weakest. The eventual conclusion would likely not withstand scrutiny, by anyone with even a passing knowledge of forensic investigative techniques. In the film’s defense, that might be the point. Though given one of the girls is supposedly looking to attend law school, her pre-legal knowledge inexplicably appears about the level obtained from a few episodes of C.S.I. On the other hand, Berk and Olsen have done a fairly good job of crafting a story that fits within their resource limitations,

Dir: Dan Berk and Robert Olsen
Star: Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

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Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Maggie Marvel

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“Juggling family and career can be murder.”

maggiemarvelMaggie Marvel (Beretta) is a single mom, with all the issues that implies. She has to try and juggle work with raising young daughter, Samantha (Katherine Brennan), on her own. But complicating matters enormously, is that work in this case is operating as an assassin for criminal kingpin Dutch – who also happens to be Maggie’s estranged father, who sent her away after his wife (and thus, Maggie’s mother) tried to poison him. Maggie was raised instead by Dixie Brown (Barron), who also works for Dutch as a killer. For he believes women are better at the job, and though he employs men, such as Bobby Shea (Dan Brennan) and his brothers, they are kept for non-lethal work. However, this line gets blurred as Bobby has fallen for Dixie, and his request that Maggie work with him on a bank robbery – hoping to make Dixie jealous – kicks off a series of events that threaten to destroy Maggie, her family and the entire crime organization.

It’s a good concept, and is helped enormously by Beretta, who was even more awesome in Hell Fire, even if her Australian accent requires some particularly convoluted explanations. Indeed, the story-line here in general is sometimes insanely complex, which explains why this runs 108 minutes: in some ways, I suspect less plot might well have been more successful here. Could certainly have done with less of the aspects which, particularly in the early going, occasionally make this feel like it’s a fetish tape for glove enthusiasts… Instead, writer-director-costar Brennan (who cast two of his own daughters in this, as well as it being produced by his wife Jean, keeping it a family affair) could perhaps have expanded on the single mother aspects, Maggie using her skills to deal with bitchy PTA rivals, recalcitrant teachers, etc., in a way similar to Serial Mom.

However, there are still a number of positives, not just Beretta. Most of the performances are solid, and the technical aspects are better than I was expecting – it’s often indistinguishable from a “real” movie. The comedic aspects work particularly well, in particular those surrounding the bank job. It involves both a vault which can only be opened by tap-dancing the combination, and also the impersonation of a German princess by someone who is neither a princess, nor can speak German. This kind of dry wit is endearing, and plays into the strengths of Beretta and the rest of the cast. The action is plentiful, though appears mostly constructed in the editing room rather than out of the participants’ obvious skills. It’s something of a shame the movie doesn’t build to the expected face-off between Maggie and Dixie, instead diverting into one of the subplots, this one involving an actress hired to play the part of Maggie, because… Well. I’m sure there was an explanation somewhere. Like much of the film, probably best not to sweat such details, instead just appreciating a strong lead and the quirky independence here.

Dir: Dan Brennan
Star: Selene Beretta, Dan Brennan, Katherine Barron, Dianna Brennan